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2019 Books and Breakfast: superheroes come in all sorts of bodies

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles this summer: You can read more about our religion picks here, our race picks here, and our gender and sexuality picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and differing bodies, because it’s not all about ripped abs and bulging biceps.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
BODY SELECTIONS

If you ask a random sampling of people on the street what they think a superhero looks like, you’ll probably get a lot of expected answers: protein-shake muscles wrapped in a package of lycra and latex, bulging at the seams. Even our superheroines often suffer the same fate, though they notably get much less lycra and latex to work with. We’re so bound to the notion that superheroism looks like Superman or Batman or even America’s ass that sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves, quite literally: What if it didn’t? Our Books and Breakfast body picks propose alternate heroes: in Faith: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage, an overweight superheroine saves the world as we know it; in Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, an anxiety-ridden girl with a neurodivergent sister who becomes the hero her people needs.

 

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine

Faith, as a character, got her start in Harbinger, the Valiant comic about a group of outcast teenagers with superpowers. As author Jody Houser explains, “[S]he’s the one person in that group who was super-excited about having superpowers, because she’s a big fan of comics and sci-fi and fantasy… [s]o, she had a very strong sense of who she wanted to be as a superhero.” In Hollywood and Vine, Faith is an adult who has moved on from the group of outcasts and is living on her own, donning a wig and glasses for her secret identity as Summer, a journalist.

You don’t need to have read Harbinger to be able to follow Faith: Hollywood and Vine, authored by Houser and illustrated by Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage. Faith’s backstory, including that she was orphaned and raised by her grandmother, is quickly summarized at the start before diving into her perfectly average, perhaps even boring secret identity. As with many new series, the first issue of Faith is mostly setting the stage and grounding us in Faith’s daily life. The second issue introduces a potential villain while fleshing out a bit more of Faith’s personal history. The third issue shows Faith in action fighting the baddie, but also gaining more allies when her cover is partially blown, and the fourth is the big battle with the villain.

What’s really new and fresh about this graphic novel is that the main character is both plus-sized and comfortable with her body. For example, while her ex wanted to be in the spotlight doing reality television, Faith chose the path of a secret identity in the hopes of quietly doing good. She isn’t pining for lost love, but rather disappointed in the life he’s established since she left him—which is great because then when we meet his stereotypically thin and airheaded new girlfriend, Faith isn’t focused on weight and looks, but rather what it means to be a superhero. Throughout the graphic novel, Faith’s weight isn’t negatively cast or even something she has to “deal with.” Instead, Faith’s struggles are centered around trying to fight crime while establishing a new independent life.

—Amanda

 

Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

Gullstruck Island

In the ordinary way of things, Hathin of the Hollow Beasts tribe of the Lace would never be the protagonist of her own story. Hathin is the younger sister of Arilou, the only Lost born to the Lace on Gullstruck Island. That status makes Arilou a profitable rarity and Hathin an indispensable figure in her tribe, young as she is, for she was born for the purpose of caring for Arilou. But the Hollow Beasts are not actually sure that Arilou is a Lost: There is precious little evidence that she is consciously sending her senses outward independent of her body like a true Lost, rather than just someone whose intellectual disability makes her seem like a Lost. Not everyone on Gullstruck is content with the supremacy of the Lost Council over the governors of the colonial bureaucracy, and when all of the Lost but Arilou turn up dead one unremarkable night, Hathin, Arilou, and all of the indigenous Lace tribes find themselves caught in a deadly conspiracy. Hathin must keep Arilou alive when all the rest of their tribe have been slaughtered: She joins the Reckoning, the semi-legendary Lace group of revengers, and finds herself contending with volcanoes, towners, other Lace, and the Nuisance Control Officer Michard Prox, who may himself be a pawn of more central, unseen forces at work on the island. The uneasy status quo that prevailed since the Cavalcaste colonists’ arrival two hundred years before is shattered, and Hathin and Prox become the fulcrum of irrevocable change.

In the ordinary way of things, Gullstruck Island would be Arilou’s story and Hathin would be lost to history, unnoticed and voiceless. Instead, Hathin finds herself holding the entire island’s future in her small hands. If Arilou’s challenge is that she is too often not present enough in her own life, Hathin’s is that she is too present: Called a worrywart, she is prone to bouts of near-debilitating anxiety in her role as Arilou’s voice and keeper, anxiety that only increases when both sisters are forced far outside their comfort zones. Hathin even worries that she isn’t bloodthirsty enough to be a proper revenger, compared to her fellow members of the Reckoning. And yet, she couches all her worries in terms of their impact on Arilou, not realizing that she, rather than her Lost sister, is the protagonist of her own story.

Gullstruck Island is the story of a girl shaking off her self-imposed habit of self-denigration in the shadow of her gifted sister, of a society wracked by racial distrust teetering on the brink of genocide: The Lace are termed an “infestation” in their own ancestral land, rounded up into concentration camps, their families separated—concepts that seemed remote when the book was published in 2009 but which are all too relevant in 2019. It is a story about colonialism, about grappling with the poisonous legacies of the past and the need for systemic change, about a malicious dentist whose soul is bound up with a bird, about a family of volcanoes whose torrid passions for one another have ruinous effects on the island’s human inhabitants. And it is a story about a small, anxious girl who learns to consider herself apart from her sister, who does not set out to be a hero but who, by right of revenge and by virtue of being ignored but observant all her life, winds up being the quiet, unassuming, effective hero that her island needs.

—Andrea

 

April Daniels’s Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Amy Boggs on April Daniels’s Dreadnought.

Dreadnought

Dreadnought is the angry, hurt, determined, super-powered girl book my soul desperately needed, offering fierce hope to combat a world where it’s so easy to get overwhelmed into apathy.

As a trans girl who is not out to her family, 15-year-old Danny Tozer has a plan: keep quiet, survive, and get out at 18. But when the world’s most powerful superhero transfers his powers to her before dying in her arms, everything changes. Part of Dreadnought’s powers is their body becomes their ideal self. Other Dreadnoughts got taller or broader; Danny has her dream transition. She also has all the powers any superhero fangirl could want.

But things aren’t that simple. Dreadnought’s superhero team is divided about accepting Danny, her family is trying to “fix” her, and even her best friend is acting weird. Danny realizes just because your dreams come true, doesn’t mean the world will celebrate you. On top of that, Dreadnought’s killer is still on the loose, and any supervillain able to take out the world’s greatest superhero is bound to hit a new one like a hurricane.

Dreadnought is the very best of what the realist superhero genre can offer, delving into heroism, trauma, and acceptance both within and without. The story never takes the easy way out. Often a narrative of overcoming is portrayed as one sweeping upward arc. Here, however, Danny revels in her power and self-love in one scene, only to have her father harangue her into a ball of self-hate the next. Just because you’ve claimed your self-worth doesn’t mean you always feel worthy, and it’s beautiful to have a book recognize that so clearly. A note: Transphobia shows up in many forms in the book, from violence to microaggressions, but by centering Danny, it feels like the author is reaching to trans readers to show they are not alone and their experiences are not trivial.

The exploration of Danny’s powers is similarly nuanced. Slingshot from helpless and hurt to one of the most powerful people on the planet, she faces dangerous temptations and a great mental toll, although those themes are more deeply explored in the book’s sequel, Sovereign. (As is the romance, but no spoilers about that.)

Dreadnought also delivers what I love most about sci-fi/fantasy: tremendous world-building. In the book, powers have been around a while but in 1944, Dreadnought appeared with greater powers than ever seen, becoming the first superhero. More followed, and then, as is wont to happen, supervillains. But this isn’t just backstory duct-taped to our world. It is woven into modern society. There are government-licensed superheroes with support and funding based on success-rates, and vigilantes technically breaking the law but largely ignored in the face of super villains. There are also people with abilities who look at life-endangering superhero work and decide to take a job as a well-paid flying courier instead. Sirens go off when a super-powered battle goes on so people can flee to shelters, and there’s a semi-annual superhero convention in Antarctica. There are also the little realistic details, like when Danny doesn’t use a car like a baseball bat because modern cars are designed to crumple as gently as possible. (Rip the engine out, though, and you’ve got yourself a proper weapon.) It feels like the tip of the iceberg we see on the page is tiny compared to the amount of thought and research that went into it, really focusing on the consequences of these changes to our world.

Add in some of the best fight scenes in the superhero genre, and that includes movies. I’m particular about my fight scenes: they must be tied to the plot, they must have an emotional impact or drive, and they must make enough sense that even if you pick apart every move slowly, it’s believable. Dreadnought is brilliant at this. (I did feel the sequel got a little glutted with fight scenes, but honestly it was all worth it for the final battle.)

The book is YA, but the kind that people who don’t normally like YA might love. And the kind some devoted YA readers might balk at. This goes double for the sequel, which dives out of high school and deeper into the world of professional superheroism. But much like the duology’s determined protagonist, Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in. It is exactly what it is meant to be, and that is glorious.

This is April Daniels’ debut novel and she has made me an eager fan. She is reportedly working on the third book, and I’ll be ready to pre-order.


Amy Boggs currently works in contracts and previously was a literary agent. She is a devoted fan of fantasy, science fiction, and all the wibbly-wobbly of speculative art. In her spare time, she tiptoes through fandom and rants about media on Twitter @notjustanyboggs.

 

New Fantasy Books: August 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of August 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Embracing Demons for The Fame in Skip Beat! Volume 1 by Yoshiki Nakamura

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Bethany Powell on Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat! Volume 1.

Skip Beat! Volume 1

I started reading Skip Beat! about a decade ago with the same sort of sheepish self-indulgence that I picked up most shojo manga. I’m drawn to manga both for nostalgia value (I didn’t read manga as a teen, but I lived in Japan as a teen) and for the kind of unstinting wish fulfillment that fuels it. Now I’m unafraid to say the series is one of my favorite long-form stories ever. It doesn’t avoid the tropes that make manga so fluffy and readable, by any means. Superficially, it’s a delightful story of a girl fighting to succeed in show business, and everything I love about a showbiz story can be found here. Skip Beat! embraces tropes with the kind of loving attention that elevates them. The real core of the story, however, is about a girl discovering her own darkness and the power it can give her.

The first volume of Skip Beat! commences as it will go on: with a surface-level recognizable trope swiftly layered with something more complex. Kyoko Mogami greets customers and competently takes their orders at “Mozburger” with the kind of cheery compliance that promises a worthy heroine. This is, of course, only one of her multiple part-time jobs, further suggesting her hard-luck status. As she changes to get to her second food-service gig (which indicates the kind of grit this girl has) she overhears with pleasure a coworker admitting to switching idols for the emerging musician Sho. Her fangirl pride, however, is swiftly overridden by a darker energy when she finds out there was a poster giveaway for the album. She bought two copies, and got zero posters. The escalation of her desire and panic frightens her coworkers, unsettling in the prosaic world of part-time locker rooms.

Kyoko tears across Tokyo, commandeering a gangster’s bicycle through sheer spiritual intensity, and rushes to the music store in half the time it should have taken. She frightens the staff of the store as she drags herself in like a vengeful spirit, only to transform back again into the effervescent girl as soon as she touches her posters. Even so, the image of her crazed determination lingers. Is this just an exaggerated portrait of a fan? Or does Kyoko have something else going on?

By the end of this chapter, the latent powers suggested in this sequence are released by a betrayal that cuts so deep, she swears off love forever. Much more importantly, she vows to have vengeance with an unholy energy that propels the rest of the story, complete with little demonic manifestations. And I love this.

Kyoko isn’t asked by this narrative to overcome her hatred, or to put her scary dark power away. She isn’t here to learn to love again. She has begun a journey toward something much scarier: realizing her own power in that darkness. To eventually find love for herself, darkness and all. Even that is only once she chooses it, and is many volumes down the road. For now, Kyoko has freed her demons to fuel her, as she chases something for herself for the first time ever. Sure, the current impetus is to humiliate someone who has wronged her, but we all have to start somewhere. Why can’t a girl’s journey to self-actualization be kicked off by swearing to achieve some as-yet-undetermined celebrity?

I love any story where the protagonist has to face up to the uglier emotions of being human, and move on from there. This is one of the core facets of Skip Beat! that I keep reading for. I also am constantly delighted by the way no character is left as a two-dimensional trope. For example, Kyoko’s first rival is a young woman who is arrogant and unlikeable, trying to push Kyoko down on her way to the top. After they both fail an audition, they develop an unlikely alliance and later become true friends. Kyoko is someone who can learn from her enemies as well as friends, and many of her friends are former enemies.

Nor does this story forget the girl Kyoko used to be. This might be another reason this story has my heart—despite her grudge-demon activated powers, Kyoko is also still the girl who had a masterful customer service facade. (One that later gets a lot more significance from her background.) That cheerful tenacity and tendency to be polite are still valued, even as she cultivates the powers of her hatred, too. It’s way more relatable that she still has both sides, even though she has dedicated her life to achieving fame to prove her nemesis wrong.

Skip Beat! continues to unfold a story where emotions have power, none of them are shameful, and integrating them offers the ability both to go on after heartbreak and to improve as a performer. If a girl and her demons are both determined enough, even the toughest showbiz challenge can’t keep them down.


Bethany Powell stumbled into speculative verse on the isolated plains of Oklahoma and has been in a fateful relationship with it ever since. Poems from this union have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Liminality, and the solarpunk anthology Sunvault. More are forthcoming, and all can be found at bethanypowell.com Bethany is also a certified health coach who specializes in writers—helping them finesse their lifestyles and habits to support creativity long-term. Learn more at unlockcoaching.com

 

Comics: Not Just for Superheroes

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list from Lani Goto.

These are recent or currently running comics I’ve really enjoyed, all by creators who both write and illustrate the works. There’s a wide range of styles, both visual and narrative, which gives a small sampling of some of the amazing variety in sequential art. If you want to expand your horizons beyond spandex and punching, here are some books that offer excellent options.

 

Delicious in Dungeon
1. Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui

This fantasy series follows a team of adventurers as they descend into a magical dungeon full of traps and monsters. It sounds like a very standard setup, except that along the way, they find that the best means to survive is to cook and eat the creatures they encounter. For some—like Laios, the excitable human fighter—this is a dream come true, as each beast provides a new culinary delight. But for others—like Marcille, the skeptical elven magician—this is super gross and very, very weird. No matter their views on food, though, the adventurers must hurry to rescue one of their own before it’s too late. And as they go deeper into the dungeon, unusual provisions might be the least of their worries.

The effortless humor and incredible art (not to mention the surprisingly realistic recipes) set this apart from many other D&D-inspired works. Although the series does play with fantasy tropes, it’s much more than an RPG parody. As the plot continues, Kui deftly raises the stakes, but the comedy never takes a back seat to the thrills. The well-rounded characters and engaging story made me laugh, gasp, and eagerly look forward to the next volume. (As of this writing, six volumes have been released in English.) It also made me really hungry, so plan to read these books with plenty of snacks on hand.

The Chancellor and the Citadel
2. The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

This is a short but lovely read, set in a ruined world after a nameless catastrophe, where the Chancellor is the mysterious guardian of civilization’s last stronghold. Though she tries her best to protect everyone, things go awry, and her friend Olive might have to help despite not having the Chancellor’s power. But it’s no easy task when the precarious safety of the Citadel is threatened from outside… and within.

Frantz’s richly textured art creates an immersive realm of light and dark, bringing nuance to her story of fear, trust, and community. There’s a kind of coziness and charming strangeness in the setting, which draws you in even as Frantz leaves much to the imagination: What are the tiny ghost-like creatures that swarm curiously around? If the residents of the Citadel aren’t human, what are they? What exactly happened to the world? But these elements add to the interest, and encourage you to spend time enjoying the details of her evocative drawings.

On a Sunbeam
3. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

In this queer coming-of-age story, two timelines unfold the experiences of uncertain teen Mia, one when she meets her friend Grace at an interstellar boarding school, and the other, five years later, where she joins a space-faring crew for her first job. Both threads follow Mia’s developing relationships with Grace and her crewmates, and eventually the two come together as Mia reaches a new point in her life.

On a Sunbeam was originally serialized as a webcomic, but reads as a seamless whole in its collected book form. Walden’s gentle storytelling is beautifully complemented by her atmospheric and meditative art. She presents a surreal setting—vast halls floating in glittering space, fish-shaped ships swimming through the darkness, a total but unremarked-on absence of men—with simple matter-of-factness. And like how the extraordinary is juxtaposed with the mundane, Walden matches dreamlike visuals with vivid, relatable emotions. As Walden explores familiar themes of loss, belonging, and growing up, she provides a quietly fantastical space to give shape to the way a young girl finds herself.

When I Arrived at the Castle
4. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

It begins with a dark and stormy night, but nothing else about this book is cliche. A catlike woman comes to the lair of a dangerous Countess, and the ensuing encounter rapidly descends into a seductive nightmare of guilt, fear, and rage. (Content warning for some gore/body horror—while not excessive, this comic might not be for the more squeamish.)

Carroll’s latest book is a prime example of her gorgeous, fairy tale-inflected horror. Her lush art spills across the pages, mostly in black and white, except for interjections of visceral red. As Carroll blends the erotic and the macabre, the imagery veers from decadent elegance to grotesque monstrousness. It’s the perfect medium for this sensual, unnerving story where ambiguous relationships and fractured histories make for a disorienting yet relentlessly eerie mood. There are no clear roles, the sense of urgency wanes into lassitude then flares back to dire intensity, and in the end, we’re left unsure of the outcome. Yet while there’s no tidy conclusion, there is still a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that something has changed, and the story could continue, but in a different way.

O Human Star
5. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

Al was an inventor who died before he could see his pioneering work in robotics come to fruition. But sixteen years after his death, he wakes up in a synthetic body exactly like his old one, and finds that humans and robots live in society together. As Al tries to figure out what has happened to him, he reunites with his former partner Brendan, now a respected inventor in his own right. Meeting Brendan also introduces Al to Sulla, a robot girl who closely resembles Al. As they work to uncover the mystery behind Al’s new life, they learn more about themselves and their relationships with each other.

This long-running webcomic is approaching its conclusion online, so now is a good time to get caught up; there are two books which collect chapters 1 through 5. (As of this writing, chapter 7 is underway, and the forthcoming 8th chapter will be the last.) Delliquanti has carefully crafted a suspenseful, intriguing story with two timelines—the past, where Al is still alive, and the present, where he is resurrected as a robot—building and reflecting on each other as they gradually converge. The clean, expressive art makes it easy to follow the sometimes complex plot, and conveys the emotional depth necessary for a work that examines identity in a profound and personal way. Delliquanti’s story delves into issues of sexuality and gender, not shying away from heartaches and struggles, but also warmly celebrating the joys of self-discovery. Along with the solid writing, the thoughtful character development and worldbuilding make this one of my favorite ongoing comics.


Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of science fiction, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

 

Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading.

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories

Today, we need to talk about fantasy and science fiction.

And why they’re different.

And why I generally like one and not the other.

And what on earth any of this has to do with Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Let’s start with a confession: As a general rule—and I do mean a very broadly applied rule with a ludicrously small number of exceptions—I don’t like science fiction. I do not like your spaceships or your far-flung planets. I do not like your artificial intelligence or your aliens. I do not like your Star Wars or your Star Trek or your Guardians of the Galaxy. I do not like any of that, Sam I am.

I often find that, when we’re talking about liking or disliking entire genres, it’s perhaps helpful to throw out the very good and very bad examples. If you put N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in the hands of someone who doesn’t like fantasy, they might well like it anyway because it’s bloody perfect. It’s so perfect that the fantasy elements— despite being wholly necessary for the entire point—are almost secondary. In so many ways, it’s a slavery book, a climate change book, a middle-aged woman’s bildungsroman book, not a fantasy book. (Yes, you and I both know it’s actually a fantasy book.) Similarly, let’s not extrapolate anything from the fact that I really did like Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi The Stars Are Legion, despite that it was terribly damp, because it’s also terribly good. While I fully recognize that sci-fi tropes are necessary for a woman to give birth to a spaceship part, for me, The Stars Are Legion is a reproductive justice book and its (very damp) science fiction trappings are secondary.

Conversely, it’s probably not helpful to draw conclusions about genres from disliking their very bad books. Bad books are bad books, whether they have aliens or not.

But when you start to look at the middle swath of books, which are neither very good nor very bad, I am much more likely to find something that I like in the fantasy books than in the science fiction books. And Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh’s collection, with its foundation of myth and its execution of science, was an interesting read for me because it almost begs the question, “Well, Amy, why is it, in fact, that you don’t like science fiction anyway?”

And here, I think, is the answer: Start, again, by removing the really great books from your calculus. And by that, I mean, more often than not, those books that use the possibilities of the genre as a necessary component of the actual story they’re telling: The Stars Are Legion’s use of forced birth of spaceship parts as a furious cry for reproductive justice, for example, or Ninefox Gambit’s shoving a resurrected, renowned, murderous strategist into the head of a crashhawk to explore the value, or not, of rule-following as a form of regime change.

Put those aside. What you’re left with is a lot of stories that, whether you love them or you don’t, maybe didn’t need that particular genre to tell its story. Because stories aren’t really about unicorns or spaceships or ghosts, are they? They’re about revolution or love or self. (And we could go down a serious rabbit hole right here about what the necessary components of a story are, but I will argue into the ground that spaceships are only very rarely one of them.) But for one reason or another or a thousand, the author chose a particular genre. So regardless of whether it’s unicorns or spaceships or ghosts (or all three, whee), you’ve begged certain questions that readers think comes with them: virginity issues, say, or the physics of warp speed, or what exactly is going bump in the night. So far, still okay!

And—I swear I’m coming to the point, hang in there—here’s why I read speculative fiction, generally: It gives authors a chance to create worlds that don’t have the same bullshit as ours. I read speculative fiction for the possibility of exploring a world that is better—more fair, more just—than ours. Or that explores issues that our world has in more thoughtful, more empathetic ways. And that’s why I get mad at both science fiction and fantasy for their thoughtless defaults to white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical people. Speculative fiction presents the opportunity to make more people human.

But here’s the thing: When we’re talking about who gets to be human in speculative fiction, science fiction fumbles that issue way more often than fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy isn’t rife with issues of slavery and consent and a thousand other problematic things. Your flowers might speak, Lewis Carroll, but do they get to vote? I fucking thought not.

But sheesh, in sci-fi, basically every setting and every plot begs questions of humanity. Every time there’s an alien or some artificial intelligence or a sentient plant or a jumped-up Roomba, I want to know whether that’s a human. In a world where a robot can run a planet, I want to know what the author thinks being human means. In worlds where computers can think on their own and people are technologically enhanced and aliens turn up every dang day, what does human-ness require? And some science fiction books interrogate this well (Semiosis), and some do not, and so many don’t even try, but when I read speculative fiction specifically so authors can explore worlds that are more fair or just or thoughtful than ours, and we’re not querying how we treat the independently thinking robots who are running entire planets, it makes me furious.

Which brings me, finally and in the most roundabout way possible, to Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Vandana Singh is both a speculative fiction author and a theoretical particle physicist. And frankly, you can always tell when a sci-fi author is also a scientist, can’t you? It’s not even so much the facility with the science that’s apparent in the details, but the way of looking at the world around you as a place of infinite possibility. A proclivity to see the wonder of both the grand scale of the universe and every person’s tiny place in it.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories has all of that wonder and then some. Singh was born in India, to parents with graduate degrees in English literature, so she was raised on stories: Indian epics, the myths and legends of South Asia, Shakespeare, and more. Those tales are the foundation for her work: Even as we’re following a protagonist across the universe in pursuit of a robot, hell-bent on revenge, Singh is explicitly drawing parallels to the Ramayana. But perhaps even more than those tales, Singh’s awe of the universe seeps into the pores of every story. Her stories are about wonder and wondering: Is time truly linear? Can one person change the cosmic course of the universe? Is there a case to be made for an Anti-Occam’s Razor Theory? Her stories are an inherent exploration: of society, of the world, of the universe.

And of what it means to be human.

Through all those legends and all that wonder, in worlds of profound artificial intelligence and alien manipulation, Singh’s fundamental question is a humanist one: What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that she poses delicately, empathetically, in a profoundly exploratory way—but she’s relentless in her inquiry. Every story in the collection asks, in one way or another, what it means to be human. Is it love? Is it revenge? Is it duty? Is it self-determination? An ability to change the world? Is it, in fact, being able to wonder at the endless possibilities of the universe?

I could tell you more, of course. About how “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is an explosive take on the power of stories. Or about how “A Handful of Rice” contemplates both surprise and compromise. Or the reader’s own moment of wonder halfway through “Peripeteia.”

But I don’t need to, do I?

Because you already know the most important part: Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading: What makes us human?


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: queer people saving the world

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles this summer: You can read more about our religion picks here and our race picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism, gender, and sexuality; and look for our body selections in a few weeks.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
GENDER AND SEXUALITY SELECTIONS

So much of our societal notion of heroism is wrapped up with the assumption that the male hero gets the girl. After all, how many stories have you read where the hero puts on his armor, picks up his sword, and clanks off to the remote forest to slay the dragon and rescue the damsel? A quite literal getting the girl, if you will, but let’s not forget that he usually marries her, too, because this pervasive form of heroism is so often about both reward and possession. But what if the hero isn’t cisgender? Or heterosexual? What does heroism look like then? Our Books and Breakfast gender/sexuality picks—April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter—ask that very question.

 

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Dreadnought

Dreadnought by April Daniels begins with Danny painting her toenails. That’s a pretty ordinary activity for a girl, but at the beginning of the book, only Danny knows that she’s a girl. Then, a superhero passes his powers to her, and inexplicably, in the space of a moment, her body goes through the transition she’s been dreaming of. So begins a story that is about what you present or hide from the world, how you want to be seen and perceived—and very importantly, a story about heroism and what you choose as opposed to what you don’t.

Danny lives in a near-future world that has been in upheaval due to various factions of superheroes warring against one another. Because she inherited the “good guy” Dreadnought’s powers, she’s invited to—even expected to—join the side of righteousness and help save the day; Danny’s not so sure about that. Classic comic hero(ine) struggles, yes—but what happens when you’re not sure you want to join the grownups in their infighting? What if you don’t want to save the world so much as save yourself from a living at home situation that’s not safe or supportive? And, in larger metaphors, who gets a say in your (secret) identity? Must you reveal it to everyone? Must you be an activist, a hero, if you will? And who should get to decide what you disclose, even what you will fight for, and when?

Dreadnought can be read on the surface as an adventure story, but there are many themes to consider: Our relationships to our bodies. The perception and treatment of women in society, and the difference between being an outsider and an insider to an identity. The struggle to be seen exactly as you are. The price of heroics. Those who love a reluctant heroine will find one in Danny and Dreadnought, wrapped up in a pacey, high-concept, capes-and-villains package that nevertheless has plenty of depth.

—Hallie

 

The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter

Perhaps I don’t need to say anything about K Arsenault Rivera’s Mongol-inspired epic fantasy, The Tiger’s Daughter, other than that it’s about two formidable girls, born of formidable mothers, learning to be heroes while also falling in love with each other? Duty-bound Shefali, who never misses with a bow and can see spirits, is the daughter of Burquila Alshara, the relentless leader of the nomadic Qorin. Arrogant O-Shizuka, preternaturally skilled with both sword and calligraphy brush, who can make flowers bloom, is both the daughter of O-Shizuru, the empire’s best swordsperson, and the niece of the emperor, next in line to take the throne. They are both destined to be legends, even gods.

The Tiger’s Daughter queries much about heroism: Rivera deliberately contrasts the heroism of the girls’ mothers—in the past and therefore somewhat neater and even glossier for its lack of detail—with the chaotic, terrifying routes that Shefali and O-Shizuka take toward their own heroism. You can readily see the elements of their lives that will create their immortality—the tiger in the garden, the demon by the fire—but heroism is a muddy, messy, raw sort of thing in practice. It’s something that, even if you believe in destiny, you must choose over and over again. And despite the personal cost, Shefali and O-Shizuka do choose it over and over again.

And in all of that, the girls’ great love for each other is front and center, not a side plot or a few chaste kisses, but an equally muddy, messy, raw sort of thing. Their love is not a distraction from their heroism or a consolation prize for their sacrifice, but a beautiful, wild, glorious thing that makes it possible for them to relentlessly choose heroism, that bronzes their legacy, that makes them worthy of their seeming godhood. Their love makes each of them more—more brave, more brilliant, and yes, more heroic—than either could have been individually. And in Rivera’s work, that is what heroism looks like: tumultuous, profound, and in love.

—Amy

 

New Fantasy Books: July 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

The problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself…

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Andrea Horbinski on E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward.

The Afterward

E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward (Dutton, 2019) is something of an odd duck in the current YA field, starting with its intentional 90s throwback cover. Although it’s explicitly cast in the vein of epic fantasy that was so popular then, and the book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings, the patron saints of latter day epic fantasy, it’s also a book about what comes after the endings of most traditional epic fantasy—namely, what happens once the world has been saved and the heroes find themselves still having to make their way in that world.

The book opens a year after a band of seven brave companions saved the world from the cursed godsgem: one of them is now Queen of Cadrium, others are retired or doing other things, but Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart and thief Olsa Rhetsdaughter have fallen right back into what they were doing before the quest. Although they have clearly outgrown those roles, there doesn’t seem to be anything else for them to do: Olsa was able to clear her debt to the thief guild, but as she has no other skills she is now an independent contractor, putting her in an arguably worse position, and Kalanthe is now awkwardly treated like a knight without having the actual rank of a knight. Both of them are isolated from their former peers, and they’re not getting along with each other too well either, despite the fact that they fell in love over the course of the quest. It seems like the setup for a queer and happy ending, but Kalanthe isn’t from a wealthy family, and she must marry a wealthy spouse to clear the debts she took on training for knighthood. For her part, Olsa’s fame means she is being set up as the fall guy for every job she takes, and she’s all too aware that she’ll end up in the noose sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, there are hints that the threat of the godsgem is not entirely ended; the “after” action unfolds alongside slices of what happened “before” the quest’s conclusion.

The problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself; Tolkien himself began, and then abandoned, a “new peril arises in Minas Tirith!” tale set early in the Fourth Age, rightly recognizing that nothing could really live up to the threat of Sauron. Johnston’s solution to focus on the domestic and make the renewed peril of the Big Bad the secondary plotline largely works, partly because the question of whether Kalanthe will be able to follow her heart or whether she will have to enter into a marriage to a man against her wishes is a vexing one for her and for the reader (and for Olsa!). I’ve seen a lot of people complain that Johnston didn’t have to set up the society of Cadrium the way she did, with queer relationships accepted but the weight of inheritance law still behind heterosexual partnerships, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also kind of the point: the law lags social mores, and as much as the king and queen would like to change things including the debt system that allows non-wealthy children to become knights at all, it takes time to enact that kind of institutional change as well as willpower. Meanwhile, people have to negotiate with existing power structures as best they can.

Student debt has been much in the news lately, and as a member of the generation whose choices in life are vastly constrained by paying off education loans, I very much appreciated the way Johnston was able to marry certain real-world late capitalism issues, including the precarity of contingent labor, with her epic fantasy setting. I also appreciated the light touch with which she handled certain tropes of that setting, such as the obligatory thieves guild and wizard city, while also questioning them—probably my favorite character aside from the protagonists is Giran, the indigenous female apprentice scholar whose own knowledge and existence challenges the established hierarchy of scholarship and power in the university city.

Johnston has acknowledged that plot isn’t her strongest element as a writer, and that certainly holds true in The Afterward and in her other five novels I’ve read. Sometimes this lack is acutely felt, as in her Star Wars novel Ahsoka, but mostly it works for me in her chosen settings, and The Afterward definitely falls into the latter category: indeed, if the plot were more action-packed it might fall into the trap of trying to make the aftermath as exciting as the quest. I also appreciate the subtle radicalism of insisting that things like marriage, inheritance, and family are just as important as defeating the Big Bad, and I very much appreciated where the book wound up. Kalanthe and Olsa have struggled both together and separately through the course of the book, in both the before and the after, and seeing them get what they ultimately deserve is satisfying partly because it’s still so rare outside of fanfiction. The Afterward is worthwhile purely for its queer love story, but everything else it’s doing makes it an even more rewarding read.


Dr. Andrea Horbinski holds a PhD in modern Japanese history with a designated emphasis in new media from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book manuscript, “Manga’s Global Century,” is a history of Japanese comics from 1905–1989. She has discussed anime, manga, fandom, and Japanese history at conventions and conferences on five continents, and her articles have appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures, Convergence, and Mechademia. In her spare time, she edits video for fun and can be found tweeting as @horbinski.

 

Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

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